Missions and the Translatable Gospel

by John B. Carman

John B. Carman is Parkman professor of divinity and professor of comparative religion at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 30-September 6, 1989, p. 786. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Book review. In a provocative new reading of Christian missions, Lamin Sanneh contends that the hallmark of Christian missions has been a readiness to translate the message into the language of other cultures — an act that has had dynamic and sometimes unforeseen effects on indigenous cultures.

Book Review:

Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, by Lamin Sanneh. Orbis, 310 pp., $17.95 paperback.

Whether they approve or disapprove, both Christian theologians and secular historians tend to understand missions as the exporting of Western Christianity to the Third World. Lamin Sanneh, professor of missions and world Christianity at Yale Divinity School, challenges that interpretation with an exciting new story of Christian mission and a provocative analysis of the role of translation in that mission. The central historical focus of Translating the Message is Christianity’s rapid spread in Africa during the past century and a half, but its distinctive interpretation has implications for all Christian mission and for a general Christian theology of culture. Moreover, this book makes a promising beginning in the comparative study of mission in Christianity and Islam.

Sanneh maintains that when first-century Christians translated their sacred texts into Greek they began a process by which the Christian message was repeatedly restated in new linguistic and cultural forms. This process both recognized the worth of each language employed and limited or relativized the significance of each cultural medium. Although particular denominations have resisted any further translation out of what for them was and is the sacred language (particularly in the case of the Bible and the central liturgy) , the impulse to translate has always reasserted itself. No matter how culturally parochial or politically imperialistic the missionary agents of the gospel have been, to the extent they have recognized and utilized the built-in Christian strategy of translation they have stood in the margins of the process and elevated the status of the culture into whose language the translation has been made.

Sanneh argues against the theory that "mission was the surrogate of Western colonialism and that . . . together these two movements combined to destroy indigenous cultures." African Christians, reading the Bible and reflecting on its message in their own languages, have tended "to question, and sometimes to renounce, the Western presuppositions of the church." Moreover, the languages and cultures into which the Christian message has been translated have been invigorated, not destroyed. The genius of the Christian movement through history is its acceptance of cultural and linguistic diversity. This process has great risks, for the diversity has repeatedly threatened the unity of the worldwide Christian community, and translation has "made Christianity vulnerable to secular influences and to the threat of polytheism."

Islam faces the opposite problem. It has succeeded in large-scale missionary expansion without sanctioning the translation out of Arabic of its Scripture or its communal prayers -- a bond of unity and a source of great strength for Islam. Forbidding the Qur’an’s translation does, however, deny sacred significance to other languages, many of which have not flourished when Islam has been dominant in a culture. Aspects of popular Islam that are expressed in the vernacular are repeatedly criticized by reform movements, which are unable on Islamic principles to appreciate vernacular expressions of Muslim piety.

Sanneh believes that both Christian and Muslim mission have a concept of sacred language, but that these concepts are diametrically opposed. Muslims consider Arabic

a revealed language . . . the medium in

which the Qur’an . . . was revealed.

. . . The author of the Qur’an who is God,

thus came to be associated with its speech,

so that the very sounds of the language are

believed to originate in heaven. . . . Consequently,

Muslims have instituted the sacred Arabic

for the canonical devotions . . . [bringing] the sacred

Arabic to the level of the ordinary believer.

In contrast, "translatability became the characteristic mode of Christian expansion through history. Christianity has no single revealed language, and historical experience traces this fact to the Pentecost event when the believers testified of God in their native tongues." But after translation into Greek, Sanneh argues, second- and third-century Christians so identified with the norms of Hellenistic culture that they turned their backs on the principle that justified "the Gentile breakthrough": "The timeless logos of the Greeks was substituted for the historical Jesus."

When missionaries among the Slavs and Germans tried to use languages other than Latin, they were opposed by who claimed "that the liturgy could be performed only in the three ancient languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, on the grounds that Pilate had used these to compose the inscription placed on the cross of Christ." In the end a compromise was reached: the Bible and the mass could be read (recited) only in Latin, but preaching and teaching was done in the vernacular.

Even this compromise was sometimes challenged (in Moravia and in England) and later the issue of vernacular translation contributed to the Reformation. In post-Reformation Roman Catholic missions, the compromise was continued (with respect to the mass it did so right up to the Second Vatican Council). In the 16th-century Spanish colonies in Latin America and the Philippines, Catholic missionaries defied the Spanish government’s order to give all religious instruction in Castilian, insisting on using the local languages. Sanneh notes other instances in which Roman Catholic missions, while retaining Latin as the language of Scripture and liturgy, have utilized local languages, cultures and artistic symbols.

Sanneh presents two alternative mission strategies: One is "mission by diffusion," making "the missionary culture the inseparable carrier of the message. . . . Religion expands from its initial cultural base and is implanted in other societies primarily as a matter of cultural identity. Islam . . . exemplifies this mode of mission." The other is "mission by translation," making "the recipient culture the true and final locus of the proclamation, so that the religion arrives without the presumption of cultural rejection. . . Conversion that takes place in mission as translation rests on the conviction that might be produced in people after conscious critical reflection." Sanneh admits that these alternative paths are not always separate or easy to untangle. "In the Jerusalem church it is obvious that most of the disciples thought at first primarily in terms of cultural diffusion."

Sanneh concedes that from the beginning, Christian history has included both mission by translation and mission by diffusion. Yet he is sure that translation is "the vintage mark of Christianity." Sanneh needs to separate this theological conclusion from the amply documented historical judgment that translation is one important medium and translatability one important principle in Christian mission. This historical judgment is crucial for Sanneh’s argument with secular historians. While "at its most self-conscious stage, mission coincided with Western colonialism," history reveals that Christianity was more than an expression of Western colonial power. Early on, Christianity in Africa began to diverge from interests of European colonial administrators. The Protestant emphasis on the primacy of the Bible, a Bible translated into the language of its local hearers and readers, took away primary authority from the missionary and gave it to an indigenous church that could be proud of its own language and culture. This is the logic of translatability, which worked against the quite conscious efforts of Western missionaries to assert their theological or moral authority or their often less conscious and more ambivalent relations to Western rulers and businesses.

The pioneer missionaries and Bible translators not only found names they considered appropriate equivalents for ho theos in the New Testament, but simultaneously concluded that "Africans had heard of God, described God most eloquently, and maintained towards God proper attitudes of reverence, Worship, and sacrifice." Moreover, many Africans concluded from "the missionary adoption of vernacular categories for the Scriptures" that the God of the ancestors could be assimilated into the God of the Bible. The jealous "God" of missionary preaching had to be spoken of with names for "God" in Africa, where "God was a hospitable deity who was approached through the mediation of lesser deities."

There is a striking irony in the situation of those missionaries who arrived quite sure that Africans had not yet heard of God. In order to translate the Scriptures or to preach a sermon they had to ask people the name for God in their language. Sanneh recounts anecdotes showing that the humor in that situation was not lost on the prospective converts. This missionary attitude, however, also elicits one of his sharpest criticisms.

Missionaries should have been pleased when they came upon evidence that God had preceded them, and that Africans possessed profound faith in the divine providence. . Instead, the missionaries appear to have been surprised, even antagonized, by examples of faithfulness, hospitality, and forgiveness. . . Faced with this bewildering situation, Africans began earnestly to inquire into the Christian Scripture, which missionaries had placed in their hands, to see where they had misunderstood the gospel. What they learned convinced them that mission as European cultural hegemony was a catastrophic departure from the Bible. . . They went on to claim the gospel, as the missionaries wished them to, but in turn insisted that missionary attitudes should continue to be scrutinized in its revealing light.

For Sanneh, translation both assumes and confirms divine preparation preceding the missionary. "Nowhere else were missionaries more anticipated than in the field of scriptural translation . . [where] we find evidence of deep and long preparation, in the tools of language as in the habits of worship and conduct, and in the venerable customs of the forebears." The truth that God is the ground of existence is one "whose sparks are entrusted to all living cultures and which the light of the gospel will rekindle into a living flame." This divine preparation for the gospel in all cultures is one theological sanction for translating the gospel into all languages. Another is confidence that the Holy Spirit will work through the translation, repeating the miracle of Pentecost, enabling all peoples to understand God’s message in their own languages.

These theological positions belong on one side of what Sanneh regards as his combination of "the theological and the historical methods to describe translatability as a religious theme." On the historical side, he devotes his final chapter to comparing Christian and Islamic mission "not primarily to judge but to elucidate their distinctive attitudes to translatability."

Sanneh’s comparison is an important step for comparative missiology, a comparison of missionary efforts in world religions, including their attitudes toward translation. Translation study is also a significant development for comparative religion, because it studies how religious communities are related in actual encounter. Third, it provides a background for Christians who are sometimes asked to give up the missionary dimension of their faith when entering into interreligious dialogue. (Even if we were willing to do so, we have no reason to assume that either Muslim or Buddhist would follow suit.)

Precisely because this comparative missiology would not make one’s "own evaluative judgments the standard of comparison," it is necessary to include in any comparison similarity as well as contrast. For Sanneh no doubt this is self-evident. His own personal journey from Islam to Christianity has not turned him against his Islamic heritage. Rather, his study of Islam after becoming a Christian includes a doctoral dissertation on the distinctive West African Islamic tradition in which he was raised, and his own statement about the "monotheist core of the gospel" that Christianity owed to its Judaic heritage has not only a rather Islamic ring, but also the explicit recognition that "both religions share this heritage with Islam."

Sanneh sometimes gives the impression, however, not only that translatability is the valid principle of Christian mission, but that cultural absolutism or cultural diffusion is both sub-Christian and inimical to cultural development. While this is a possible theological assessment, a historical comparison of Christianity and Islam needs to include the Christian instances of cultural diffusion. As Sanneh himself notes, there have been many refusals to translate in the history of Christian mission.

In a theological assessment of Christian missionary strategies, moreover, I question whether cultural diffusion and ‘translation need be antithetical. The notion of an untranslatable Scripture is connected with a conviction of divine revelation in particular persons, events and institutions. While the original language of the Scripture, of the temple cult and of much scholarly debate was Hebrew, the language of the marketplace was Aramaic. Outside Palestine many Jews used Greek in their homes and recited the Greek translation of the Hebrew sacred writings. What in modern terms would be called Jewish culture was believed to be the same, whether the Scripture was read in Hebrew or in Greek. The first gentile Christians inherited this culture of religious beliefs and practices, and it made concrete their claim to be part of God’s chosen people.

Subsequently, many Christian communities have also claimed to be God’s chosen people. Many such communities have insisted that foreigners who hear the gospel from them should accept their particular cultural version of the gospel as the embodiment of the authentic Christian tradition. is such a claim justified? At the very least, surely, the principle of translatability should serve as a powerful deterrent to the tendency of any national church to absolutize its form of Christian faith.

We can admit, however, that what each "Christian culture" tries to embody is the total inheritance of Christian tradition, and it is this tradition that its missionary representatives have sought to pass on. It is certainly true that church history often appears to be more a record of Christian unfaithfulness than a deposit of faith. But even a record of mistakes can be a salutary lesson for a new Christian community; and there also in that history a record of courageous attempts to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit.

Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians and Muslims should explore together their understandings of God’s mission to the world in a comparative inquiry that is dialogical as well as historical. Cultural diffusion is understood from inside as honoring a sacred language and customs chosen to convey God’s word and upholding a body of custom developed in obedience to the specifics of God’s word. Both approaches to mission assume that religion is expressed through culture but also transcends and transforms culture, and both approaches must wrestle with the particularity and universality of God’s saving Word.

Modern Protestant mission has, in fact, emphasized both translation and the forming of converts in a Christian culture brought in from outside, a culture stamped with a particular Western culture and often, in "higher" education, communicated through a particular Western language. A familiar controversy in 19th-century Protestant mission policy in India illustrates this fact. A generation after William Carey and the other Serampore missionaries enlisted the assistance of many Hindu scholars in translating the Bible into the major Indian languages, Alexander Duff proposed a different approach to evangelism: education in English. Not only would the Christian values embodied in English literature attract high-caste Hindus to Christ, it was claimed, but the teaching of modern science would undermine Hindus’ faith in their own religion.

As it turned out, both Carey’s approach and Duff’s "cultural diffusion" approach have had great consequences in India’s history, though neither succeeded in the common aim of "winning India to Christ." The translators helped to stimulate many Indian languages, in some cases initiating prose literature and laying the groundwork for a renaissance of regional cultures. English education became modern Indians’ distinctive mark, giving them an exceptional opening into Western culture. In most Christian missions, primary education was done in Indian languages and more advanced education in English. For many Indians, a bifurcation of culture took place, one that is quite apparent among educated Indian Christians. If British missionary societies had made the opposite decision, opting for Carey’s approach over Duff’s, Indian Christian theology might be very different from what it is today, possibly much more separated from the modern West and much closer to the idiom of regional Indian cultures.

Sanneh is one of a small number of scholars who are historians of religion and theologians at the same time. His work offers us a more accurate historical picture of Christian translation, and his theological interpretation can make Christian mission both more faithful to the truth and more respectful of other cultures.